I met him when he came to pick me up from the Soviet-era sanatorium where I had spent my first three days in Kazakhstan, learning as quickly as possible some of the complexities of this vast country. I hadn’t known a word in Russian before I arrived, and I struggled to properly pronounce my simple greeting to him and his wife, Farida.
"Zdravstvuite, menya zovut Jeff." (Hello, my name is Jeff.)
They both smiled politely and introduced themselves, but said nothing more.
It was early June, but already hot. The ride to my new home, a village on the edge of the foothills to the snow-peaked Tian Shan (Celestial Mountains), took two hours. Along the way, Farida stopped to do some shopping. While we waited, Itam played a battered tape of ethnic Uighur music, which I liked.
Here we first used the goulash of languages that would see us through the next two and a half months of my training—a mix of Russian, English, German, and gestures. Itam had studied German at university many years before, and I had taken a semester of it nearly as long ago. He had picked up some English from his two sons who were studying it, while I took Russian lessons every day.
He always spoke slowly and clearly to me in Russian, which I appreciated. But, like many people, he also had the peculiar habit of speaking extremely loudly, as if sheer volume would somehow help me understand better.
"Jeffrey, come!" he boomed at mealtimes, his light green eyes laughing. "Kushai, kushai!" It would become a familiar refrain—eat, eat!—along with chai pit (drink tea) and chut-chut. Literally, this means "a little," but in Kazakhstan there’s no such thing as a little when it comes to food or drink. Though Kazakhstan is a Muslim country, much of the population drinks, perhaps a holdover from Soviet times. While Itam occasionally enjoyed vodka, he did so moderately, and he never pressured me to join him.
I called him my host father, but he was only eight years older than me, so he was really more like a protective older brother. He taught me the finer points about local customs, gently chiding me for shaking water from my hands after I washed them (Uighurs believe this brings misfortune) and showing me how to give handshakes the Central Asian way—lightly but warmly, with free hands holding each other’s fore-arms to show respect.
When I discovered that I had forgotten to bring a handkerchief with me, he gave me one of his. In every way, he made a special effort to include me in his life and the life of his family.
"Jeffrey!" he boomed. "You, me, go arbeiten." He always used the German for "to work," though I understood the Russian—rabotat—just as well. He was a veterinarian, and I would watch as he peered into cows' eyes, administered shots, and rubbed ointment into their sores.
Another time, he and Farida had me dress in my best for an Uighur wedding.
Ethnic Uighurs trace their roots to the primarily Muslim Xinjiang province of China and are closely related to the Turkic people of Cen-tral Asia. This wedding featured some folk music similar to that I had heard on my first ride with Itam. They also played Russian rock-and-roll and, more than once, the extended live version of the Eagles' "Hotel California."
At first, I felt shy and resisted invitations to join in the dancing. I sat on the periphery and watched, enjoying the seemingly bottomless portions of salads and appetizers that were a meal to me, though they were really just the warm-up to the actual meal. Eventually, I was moved to join the happy throng, the men in suits, the women in glittering dresses, their arms gracefully twining and untwining above their heads. We danced all through the evening and into the next morning.
The days moved slowly that summer in my village. It wasn’t exactly a place that time had passed by, but certainly only fingers of mod-ernity had managed to slip in under the blanket of time. My family had electricity and a television, but, like most of their fellow villagers, no telephone. Water had to be carried from a well half a kilometer away; hot water was made by boiling it or, for outdoor showers, leaving a barrel exposed to the sun all day.
The family’s fortune, if counted in hard currency, was a trifle. Itam’s income barely met their needs. But as with Central Asian peoples since before recorded history, their real wealth was measured in the richness of their family life and in animals—in their case, sheep.
Toward the end of my stay, they needed to sell five sheep from their flock to pay for their children’s education for the coming year. I was invited along to help catch them. We hopped onto a small horse-drawn cart and slowly clopped up the road to the pasture where two pastukhi, or shepherds, were overseeing the common herd. Itam’s father-in-law chose the best from among them. Itam, his sons, and I chased them down, tied them up, and placed them in the cart.
Clouds of dust rose into the sky, the sun fell toward the horizon, and the nearby mountains faded into a hazy blue and then an indistinct shadow. It was dark when we rode back down the road toward home. I felt bad for the poor sheep lying next to me, but I felt good knowing that we were taking part in a cycle of life that had been played out for centuries here—knowing that Malik and Adik would be able to continue studying English, that Takmina would gain a marketable skill in learning to cut and style hair before eventually going on to university as well.
I also sensed that Itam was proud of me for helping his family in this way. My feeling of this only increased on his 45th birthday, the first and only time I ever saw him drunk.
He came in late for dinner, having been out celebrating with two friends from his university days. While Farida ladled out soup and prepared a pot of strong black tea, Itam rambled on, more emotional than usual. His family, unaccustomed to this, largely remained quiet. Finally, he put down his spoon and looked directly at me, struggling for words.
"Moe serdtse…" he said at last, pressing his hand to his chest. When I said I didn’t understand, he repeated it in English.
"My… my heart…."
I was touched. He was trying to tell me how much he would miss me. I placed my hand on his forearm and squeezed.
My training was over, and the time to leave for my assignment as a full-fledged Volunteer had arrived. All the family came to see me off, all except for Itam. He had planned his vacation for this time and was away again with his university friends.
I tried to give back Itam’s handkerchief, but Farida refused, saying that I would need it. She also promised that Itam would meet me at the train station.
To my disappointment, he never showed up. But I left with hugs from the rest of the family and more memories than it seemed two and a half months could possibly provide.
After a 15-hour train ride, I arrived at my new home, Shymkent. Far from being the dangerous place I had been warned of ("Texas" my family called it, for they believed it was like the Wild West), I found this sprawling, low-rise city colorful and friendly. Its tree-lined streets were cool and dotted with many interesting ethnic cafes. The university where I would teach was small, but its students were enthusiastic. I looked forward to a bright two years of work.
This exciting time was darkened by some terrible news: Itam had died the day after I left. Previously unknown to everyone, he’d had a heart condition, which became lethal when combined with his recent celebrations.
I remembered him talking of his heart and was shocked to realize he had been trying to tell us of feeling pains in his chest. In hindsight, it seems we might have caught this, but at the time it was the farthest notion from our minds. He was middle-aged and seemingly in perfect health. Only days before I had wrestled sheep to the ground with him.
I learned another hard lesson in hindsight when I found that I didn’t have a single photograph of Itam. I had photos of the rest of the family, my Peace Corps friends, some village children, my pupils, even a few random pastukhi. I must have assumed that Itam would always be around, that I would have plenty of chances to catch him in just the right moment.
The only tangible remembrance I had was his handkerchief.
It's funny how small, seemingly insignificant moments in our lives can take on such meaning later. If I had brought a handkerchief with me to Kazakhstan, then I would have nothing to remember Itam by.
There's nothing obviously extraordinary about it. It's just a simple piece of cloth, probably bought at the local bazaar for a few tenge coins. Yet when I look at it, I see pictures woven into the cotton: I see laughing light green eyes and in them the reflection of lush green foot-hills, snow-peaked mountains, dusty pastures, hazy steppe sunsets. And darkness. But in that darkness rings the clip-clop of horse hooves, the trill of Uighur wedding music, a voice booming "Jeffrey!" and I feel that at any moment I might stand up and dance.
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